Choking in Sports: Mental Tools for Athletes

*This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

“How can you hit and think at the same time?”—Yogi Bera

Choking and Athletes
There’s a scene in the movie “Bull Durham” where Kevin Costner steps out of the batter’s box because he’s thinking too much and then stops himself. He refocuses and gives himself a word to focus: “meat.” His actions in the movie generally give a good example of what researchers are saying about athletes and how best to focus.
chokeIn fact, Sian Beilock, a professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Chicago, recently wrote an entire book on choking, aptly titled, Choke. In it she addresses the many aspects of pressure and focus and why some people choke in pressure situations. In a nutshell, choking is due to overthinking. Her review of the research highlights some of the mental guidelines that athletes who perform under pressure can use to focus their minds. Many athletes experience the difficulty of knowing where to put their focus. Beilock’s guidelines help to steer focus away from one’s own thoughts or self-analysis and towards a more neutral mind. The guidelines to consider include:

  1. Use distraction techniques. For example, sing a song while walking the golf course or running cross country.
  2. Refocus and don’t dwell on mistakes. Instead, focus on one motion or the next step.
  3. Use your breathing as a tool to refocus. Say the words: “I am breathing in” and “I am breathing out” as you breathe.

These three have the same objective: to help athletes not think too much. For example, most people have either learned to ride a bike or drive a car. Recall the first times you began to learn these activities. You most likely had to think about the mechanics and all the levers or buttons to push. The ride was probably not smooth and very mechanical. The same holds true in sport. Research in this area shows that athletes who overthink while doing an activity they have practiced many times actually perform more poorly than if they simply act or distract themselves.   Additional suggestions include:

  1. Choose a key word or short phrase (mantra) to repeat in your mind, such as “follow through” or “focus”.
  2. Focus on the positive by choosing a positive word.
  3. Tell yourself something to take an action, like “I am choosing my club” rather than spend too much time adding your scores and guessing your final round. When you think too far ahead you lose your focus or at least split it. This can be associated with anxiety.

A Simple Mental Exercise for Re-Focusing and Decreasing Choking
The final suggestion is discussed differently in the sport psychology literature. First, it seems most research supports using one word or a mantra (and possibly repeated over and over) to avoid overthinking. The question is  what word or words are best?
Some researchers suggests focus should be on a specific action or a few words, such as “bend elbow”, or “follow through” rather than the entire process. This is considered a process focus.
Others have found an outcome goal to be the best such as “in the bucket.” Finally, one study found holistic words to be best, such as the word “smooth” (see Gucciardi and Dimmock in Psychology of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2008).  It appears more will be studied in this area to help athletes know more precisely what word or words to use for certain situations.  For more on improving your focus check out this article: Improve Focus and Attention by Reducing Performance Anxiety.


Recent Posts